Catherine – A Bronze Nightmare

Each of Catherine’s two distinctive gamescapes are quantified by a visual scoring system. By day, as Vincent Brookes lounges in The Stray Sheep bar with his bummed-out friends, right and wrong conversational choices are represented by an on-screen dial, which fluctuates between a red zone (good) and a blue zone (bad) depending on the humaneness and kindness of our chosen dialogue. As he sleeps, we play out Vincent’s recurring night terror, as he’s forced to navigate a complex tower of moveable blocks. Fail to reach the summit in time, or fall off in the process and Vincent will be killed both in the dream world and in real life. Upon leaving the nightmare, you are awarded a numerical score based on your speed, efficiency and use of special abilities. Catherine also presents you with a trophy of either gold, silver or bronze, depending on your performance in each puzzle section. As such, our experience as Vincent is constantly monitored, scored and numbered.

It’s a system which upends each and every of Catherine’s thematic abstractions. Where Vincent et al. are mystified at the prospect of love, women and fatherhood, we as players are shown in very clear, graphical terms exactly how each of these experiences are meant to be handled. Our conversations with Katherine, or Catherine, which exasperate and unnerve Vincent are, to us at least, reduced to comprehensible numbers and charts, eliminating any need for ambiguity or apprehension. Where Vincent bumbles his way through confrontation after confrontation, never sure or comfortable with himself, we can always rest assured in the certainty of our decisions; if we pick the right thing to say, it is confirmed to us. The gravity of Vincent’s predicament does not translate to we as players, who, unlike the canononical Vincent, confront his problems with the failsafe of impermanence; if we say something wrong, we’re made immediately aware of our mistake and permitted to correct ourselves by loading up and retrying.

Though we’re encouraged to answer Catherine honestly, our responses are instantaneously characterised as either wrong or right, prompting us instead to mislead the game into awarding us a higher score. Our inveterate predilection toward the acquisition of points will lead us to pursue the game’s tangible rewards as opposed to the more significant promise of a personalised playing experience. Naturally, we play to win. As far as Catherine’s trophies, meters and charts are concerned, that means answering “correctly” as opposed to honestly.

For the sake of a meaningless feedback system, the abstractness of Vincent’s nightmares is also forfeit. Dreamscapes, generally encapsulated by unrealism, unpredictability and illogic, become controlled, plottable competitions under the brunt of Catherine’s insistent numbers. Where we as players are expected to share in Vincent’s horror and confusion, the formulaic, comprehensible puzzle sections portray a cool and mathematical sense. We are constantly privy to our nightmare’s mechanics; certain regulations and boundaries dictate the course of Vincent’s subconscious terrors, leaving us with a certainty of dominion as apposed to our avatar’s characterised vulnerability. Like the digits and graphics that qualify each of our social behaviours, Catherine’s computational puzzles reduce our emotional relativity. Unreality, characterised in Max Payne, Silent Hill 2, Uncharted 3 and Heavy Rain as disobedient of the game’s regular mechanics, proceeds in Catherine via a traceable, quantifiable puzzle logic, diminishing our empathetic connection to the main character and his plight.

These controls are in place to measure our skill and decide our reward. Every puzzle concludes with the aforementioned final score and trophy, congratulating you on having a gold/silver/bronze nightmare. It may not necessarily be the case that we always play with these awards in mind, but Atlus certainly intend them to be earned; certain Achievements can only be unlocked once you acquire X amount of gold trophies. Even if we do not pursue these relatable marks of quality, they sever our connection to Vincent. We are not permitted to share in his jubilation once he reaches the end of his nightmare, instead resigned to commiserating our low score, or lack of gold trophy. It’s not only counter-productive, severing our emotive bond with Vincent, but also cynical, to feel that players need to be constantly reassured by these digestible congratulations.

It would be naïve to expect anything more from Catherine, a game populated by one-dimensional archetypes, spouting sterile, immature sentimentality. Though many other reviewers enjoyed Catherine as a tacit, procedural and unique exploration of Vincent’s and the player’s subconscious, it is in fact merely systematic. Equations and gauges quantify our decisions much more than any truly clastic text ought to. Reminded of the omnipresence of rules, we’re encouraged to approbate rather than communicate. Our relationship with the game’s thematic conceits is damaged by our enclosure within a rigid, discerning system that dissolves our complex moral decisions down to numerals. The nightmare sections, which consistently bang the same drum, resolve to previse rather than confound, once more disconnecting us from Vincent who, ostensibly, we are designated to embody. Where choice, honesty and self-reflexivity could have manifested within Catherine’s days and nights, we’re confronted by intransigent, non-discursive and archaic scoring systems that provoke a dianoetic approach rather than an emotive one.